Jinja: A flood of changes for Africa’s adrenaline capital

Rafting Uganda White Water Mugabe Jinja

Steve takes a mouthful of adrenaline (and the Nile) while river boarding at Jinja, Uganda


It’s the town that Robert Mugabe unintentionally helped crown a capital, a place full of junkies who spend fistful of American dollars to get their fix.

On my first journey through Africa, back in the late 90s, Victoria Falls (mainly on the Zimbabwean side) was the spot for the junkies to get their adrenaline hit – backpackers would spend a few weeks’ budget there in a few days.

There was (is) a portfolio of petrifying options, including a 111m bungee jump from a steel-girdered bridge in the no-man’s land between Zambia and Zimbabwe and white water rafting down the Zambezi River, through reputedly the most foolhardy commercially-run rapids in the world.

Obviously Mr Mugabe’s policies throughout the noughties were not kind to the country’s tourism trade (or much else, besides his cronies’ bank accounts) so the African adventure-sports capital lost its flow of peril pursuers. A town further north, in Jinja, Uganda, was elated to mop up the adrenaline surplus.  

Right at the claimed source of the Nile (although Rwanda and Burundi may disagree), Jinja offers the watery mayhem of the Zambezi with substantially less political agro. 

The market for mayhem, probably to Mr Mugabe’s chagrin, if he indeed followed the African adventure-sports market, is still the same demographic as it was in the 90s – namely, relatively cashed-up, white westerners – but there has been a tangible shift in other demographics within the industry.

When I rafted down the Zambezi, the river cowboys (guides) were predominately big-drinking young and white. A minority of support staff hailed from the area, but they played only bit parts in the cash-rich activities. On the surface it seemed to me like unspoken adventure-sport apartheid.

But in Jinja in 2011 the faces have changed; the guides are no longer predominately from the UK, America or the Antipodes, although you’ll still bump into more than a few of them in the backpacker bars around witching hour. 

On my first attempt at river boarding (plunging down the same rapids a raft trip does but with only the buoyancy of a boogie board and life jacket, see picture above) my guide was Paulo, hailing from, of all places, Jinja.

On the three-boat rafting trip I accompanied down the nearby rapids all the guides, all the support crew and all the safety kayakers were also from Jinja.

Paulo grew up in the town and he knows this formidable arm of the Nile like it’s his rowdy older brother.

He also happens to be a Ugandan freestyle kayak competitor, who’s competed internationally, in places such as Canada and Switzerland which, strangely, he thought was “a bit cold”.

 All very reassuring when he’s the one taunting you to plummet brain first into widow-making grade five rapids – and the one who’ll likely help drag you from turmoil.

Clinically laid-back Paulo is unlikely to have many clients from Jinja, river-boarding, kayaking and rafting (US$130/140 per day) are well beyond the means of a large proportion of Ugandans, as are most of the adventure sports in the new African adrenaline capital.  

I spent a day mountain biking around the villages surrounding the Bujagali Falls area (the heart of the current activities) with a German adrenaline worshipper. Many villagers would enthusiastically say hello (with creative variations), or stop and stare, but most seemed to have a quizzical look on their faces which seemed to ask: ‘I wonder what it would be like to have leisure time’. One teenage boy asked us why we were riding bicycles when we could afford to hire a taxi.

A few years ago the Ugandan government, in its indisputable wisdom, commissioned a hydroelectric power station to be built a few kilometres past Bujagali Falls. The dam, when operational, any day now, will flood the area, raising the water levels by about three metres, effectively transforming the rapids into stills and the falls into not-falls.

Businesses on nearby banks (backpacker hostels and sports-based companies such as quad bike outfits) are anxious about their livelihoods, but most have already begun shifting some operations downstream.

Paulo seemed nonplussed about the changes as he prepared to kayak down the falls for old time sake.

He will still have a job and he, perhaps better than non-local guides, can appreciate the reality of Uganda’s chronic power shortages; load-shedding means that those without generators (the majority) are lucky if they get a couple of intermittent hours of electricity to their homes every day.

This scheme may, just may, help Ugandans (environmental concerns aside), maybe giving them a few more hours of power a day while only mildly inconveniencing the red-helmeted visitors who throw themselves at the mercy of the Nile. 

I’m sure the adrenaline junkies will be too fixated on their next hit to notice the extra 15 minutes bus ride from Jinja town to start their adventure.

Steve Madgwick